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You’re not clutch until you are, and Crosby is showing he's suddenly clutch

Dom Luszczyszyn
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You’re not clutch until you are, and Crosby is showing he's suddenly clutch

Sidney Crosby. Image by: Getty Images

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You’re not clutch until you are, and Crosby is showing he's suddenly clutch

Dom Luszczyszyn
By:

Historically, Sidney Crosby's performance has diminished with each round, but over the last two runs to the Stanley Cup final, he has stepped up his game.

As far as “legacy-defining games” go, Sidney Crosby delivered a masterpiece in Game 5, a three assist triumph that led the Penguins to a 6-0 drubbing over Nashville. It was a big statement from a big-time player in a big-time game.

Given the relative importance of that game to your average playoff tilt, it was probably the best game of Crosby’s playoff career. That’s what the numbers say, but you could tell from just watching that he was on a much higher level than anyone else.

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Importance here is measured by change in series win probability with a win or loss multiplied by Cup probability given the number of teams left.

From the moment he stepped on the ice he was making ridiculous, game-changing, defense-splitting plays and looked dominant until the game was over (which in this case was after two periods). It’s a big change from how he looked in the previous four games, where he had four points, but was playing a bit below his usual level.

That doesn’t really matter though because he stepped up when the team needed it most. In the biggest game of the playoffs Crosby rose to the occasion, just like he did last year in the Cup-clinching game against the Sharks after a similarly pedestrian (by his standards) first five games. The two biggest games in the last two seasons and Crosby came up clutch in back-to-back years.

Here’s the funny part about that: until last season, Crosby was actually the second least clutch player in the league since 2007-08 among players who’ve played 20 or more playoff games.

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“Clutch Score” is the difference between each player’s Game Score above average in the playoffs and their Leverage-Weighted Game Score above average which weights each game by how important it was. Basically, performing better in games with higher stakes as opposed to early rounds improves a player’s Clutch Score, while wilting when the pressure is highest does the opposite. Near the top of that list are a number of noted clutch guys like Danny Briere, Justin Williams, Bryan Rust, and Ville Leino so the math is probably sound.

So why is Crosby so low? It turns out that facing one of the best Red Wings teams of all time, in the 2008 Cup final, is a bit of a challenge and that severely drags down Clutch Score, especially considering he did really well in the previous three rounds.

In 2007-08 Crosby went point-per-game, but he was out-classed completely at 5-on-5, much like the rest of his teammates. He had six points in six games, but was out-attempted by 56 for the series, which is nearly 10 per game and good for a 37 percent ratio. That’s tanking-for-McDavid-Buffalo bad. That’s one reason I prefer Game Score here, because it can contextualize the fact that Crosby got dominated despite putting up points. The next year he improved at 5-on-5 (minus-25, 43 percent), but only registered three points in seven games. In both Cup finals he played below average, a stark drop from the previous three rounds.

2007-08

First three rounds: 0.86
Cup Final: -0.11
Change: -0.97

2008-09

First three rounds: 1.29
Cup Final: -0.26
Change: -1.55

That kind of decline will factor heavily in Clutch Score, and his 2008-09 run is actually the least clutch playoff run on record. Weighted by leverage, his Game Score above average drops from 0.81 (amazing) to 0.20 (just good), giving him a Clutch Score of -0.61 that year. He got his Cup, but it wasn’t with the performance you’d expect from him where he wilted in the three most important games of the series (though he was injured in the final one).

Those two series hurt his finals reputation a fair amount as they were the two worst series of his playoff career. The past two help push things back up, but Crosby still sees a big drop in Game Score going from the previous three rounds to the final.

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He may have 20 points in 24 games – which is still below his lofty standards – but he looks even worse when his other stats are factored into the equation. That shouldn’t be too surprising given Detroit’s 5-on-5 dominance over him in his first two trips. His points-per-game in the final is 0.83, but his average Game Score (which is built on the same scale) is just 0.59. That’s just barely above an average forward.

So Crosby was not clutch, which is in direct contrast with his last two finals appearances where he was clutch (not to mention he may have scored a Golden Goal in between). Maybe he learned how to become clutch over time? Funny enough, it actually kind of looks like that: a slow progression from the abyss to his past two seasons where he’s elevated his game at the most important time.

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And that’s what brings the debate full circle: is “clutch” a skill, an innate trait that can be brought upon when needed, or in Crosby’s case, learned over time? We see players like Williams score big goals at crucial moments and figure it must be, because he keeps doing it. Briere was always better as the games got bigger, too. Every year there’s a new playoff hero doing big things at big moments that it feels like a power that can be summoned from within when the game is on the line.

For that to be true, something like Clutch Score would have to be consistent throughout a player’s career. Every playoffs, a clutch player should have a high Clutch Score, and for some players that’s exactly what happens. But as it turns out, they are mostly exceptions to the rule that can probably be explained by random variation. (I say probably because there is a human element involved here and it is of course possible that this talent does exist in the rarest of cases). For the most part, there’s almost no year-to-year relationship for Clutch Score, meaning it’s not something that is repeatable.

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That’s why we see “new” playoff heroes year after year. Maybe the old heroes from years past lost it, or maybe they never had it and were just in the right place at the right time. Nearly every time it’s just a fluke in a small sample and some teams pay millions of dollars for it just to get burned by it when players can’t repeat the magic next playoffs.

The entire idea of clutch is an interesting thought exercise because it assumes players save their best for when it matters most. If players actually did that, they might not even make it to that point at all and the whole process would be pointless. At this level, players have to be at their best always – they can’t save it for the right time because the right time may not come. This isn’t basketball where a single player can take over a game in an instant. Goals are rare and hard to come by, players will take them whenever they come. Sometimes that’s in the first period, sometimes that’s in overtime, but they’re not saving anything for when the team needs it most because teams always need goals.

The point is that you can’t count on clutch, it’s just something that happens.. Players can be clutch in the moment, but that doesn’t mean they’ll always be clutch. If clutch was something you could depend on, we’d expect Crosby to always wilt deeper in the playoffs because that’s what he showed the last time he made the final. But that’s not who he is, it was simply an outlier performance against an exceptional team with terrific players doing everything in their power to stop him.

The fact he was mathematically one of the least clutch players should say all that needs to be said on the subject: it doesn’t really matter, especially considering his play this year where he’s been the best player on either team through five games. You’re clutch until you’re not, and you’re not clutch until you are.

Thanks to Matt Pfeffer for the game importance data.

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You’re not clutch until you are, and Crosby is showing he's suddenly clutch